Category Archives: London

Orchids and greenhouses at Kew Gardens

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Kew Gardens is an expanse of lush greenery on the western edge of London, a section of the city that I haven’t spent much time in due to it being full of more residential neighborhoods and not much “stuff”. I recently read a breakdown of London’s regions that described them like this: “east is poor, west is posh, south is rough, and north is intellectual”. That sounds like a crazily broad brush, because it is, but west = posh seems about right. It’s definitely fancy over there.

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The whole point of making the drive up to Kew Gardens was to check out the Orchid Festival, a yearly celebration in the Princess of Wales Conservatory in the gardens that celebrates the plant life of India. There are literally thousands of orchids (plus cacti, succulents, and all sorts of other plants) across ten different ecosystems in different rooms, all blooming simultaneously. It is stunning.

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Jon and I spent an hour or so in the orchid conservatory, wandering from room to room, battling the crowds – a beautiful Saturday in London, no surprise there – and then headed back outside for more general Kew Gardens exploration. The grounds themselves are so expansive that I think crowds would be impossible, so our walk around in the dying winter evening light was very calming and just plain nice.

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We also spent some time in the Palm House, a Victorian-era glass greenhouse that is as hot as the sun. I was melting, and it would be an amazing place to go on an actual cold day in winter to escape the chill. However, we were there on the warmest day of the year so far. It’s a lovely building though. My research tells me that experts consider the Kew Palm House to be one of the most important surviving iron and glass structures in the world. Pretty nifty!

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Jon and I also took in The Hive, an art installation in the gardens that is actually inspired by scientific research into the health of bees – it’s made form thousands of pieces of aluminium to form a huge metal hive that hums and buzzes like a real hive does. And in fact the Hive is responding to real-time activity of the bees in the Kew Gardens.

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And that was that. We left the gardens and found a cute little pub across from the cricket grounds to have a refreshing beverage, then it was back in the car for a few hours’ drive back to our fluffy dog and some dinner. I’d like to go back sometime in the spring or summer, when more has come to life and everything is in bloom. But if you have the chance – go check out the Orchid Festival before it’s too late!

Street Art in Shoreditch

East London isn’t a part of the city that I’ve traditionally spent much time in, although I’ve always loved how vibrant and gritty it is. As the area becomes more and more gentrified, it seems that the time to enjoy this neighborhood while it still has a real personality of its own is drawing to an end. Soon Shoreditch will cease to look like Shoreditch at all! OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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Last Saturday I was invited to check out a walking street art tour with Alternative London and, guys, I love walking tours, so I said yes. I just think that wandering around with an expert in *whatever* is a really great way to spend your time in a city, whether or not you’ve been there before. (See also, VooDoo tour in New Orleans, Street Food tour of Brighton….my love of walking tours is well-documented here).

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Doug, our very East London-y guide, took us round all the hot spots, starting at Shoreditch High Street Station, going down Brick Lane and eventually over to the Boundary Estate and back over near Hoxton Station.

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There was so much color everywhere, and so many different kinds of textiles – it’s not all graffiti, or even all painting. And the rate of turnover is really high, so even someone going today, a few days after I was there, would have new works to check out.

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You can definitely see where the old and the new are rubbing up against each other – blocks of shiny new luxury apartments rising hundreds of meters above run-down, painted-up brick buildings that have been on these streets for decades. The new parts seem garish at times, completely out of their element.

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The tour guide also pointed out lots of the hidden street art – for example, this guy below. A small angel on a street sign. The wings look so realistic because the artist cut them off of a dead pigeon he found in the street before dipping them in paint and attaching them to the body. Easily missed when walking by. Kind of creepy. Definitely Shoreditch.

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The artists in Shoreditch are transient and permanent, some making mark after mark in the neighborhood they call home, some coming from around the world to make their piece and leave. This piece for example – the artist does animals like this in every city he goes to, choosing an animal that fits into the area’s ecology.

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This stunning 3-D mural/sculpture earned its maker three and a half years in jail. Totally reasonable. But then again, the UK isn’t known for its light hand with street artists. Ironic really, here, since that’s a large part of what gives Shoreditch, and more widely, the East End, it’s personality.

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This gorgeous wall is one of the only known works in the area by a female artist, which of course caught my eye. Graffiti is seen as such a male-dominated pursuit; it was nice to have this recognition during the tour.

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Eventually the tour wound down and we made our way back to the Alternative London offices and through Spitalfield’s high street (at least, I think it was Spitalfield’s high street, don’t quote me on that).

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An hour and a half well-spent on a Sunny day in London. After that I hopped on the Overground, met my friend Ariel, then headed to Hampstead Heath with her friends for a long afternoon of picnicking in the sunshine before making my way back down to Brighton for a birthday party that I was very late to. What more could you ask of a perfect summer’s day in England?

shoreditch alternative london street art

st pancras renaissance hotel

A luxe birthday weekend at the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel

Jon turned 31 this month, and his present from me was an ultra-fancy weekend away at one of his favorite hotels in London, the St Pancras Renaissance. And I don’t use the word luxurious lightly – it was, without a doubt, the fanciest hotel I have ever stayed in, and our 36 hour get away was one of the best experiences I’ve had in my life at this point. It was wonderful, and a stay there was everything we were looking for, having only viewed its imposing Gothic-Revival architecture from the outside. (Everyone has favorite hotels that they’ve never actually been in, right?)

 

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We stayed in one of the Junior Suites in the Chambers Wing and it was stunning – our room overlooked the Eurostar terminal, which is maybe not everyone’s cup of tea, but Jon loves a bit of trainspotting.

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chambers suite st pancras

The hotel has a long and storied history in London, and started life as the Midland Grand Hotel all the way back in 1873. Unfortunately it was built just on the cusp of a load of changes to what hotel visitors expected (for example, people started expecting a private bathroom in their suite, that sort of thing) and it sadly closed its doors in 1935. It sat vacant, derelict and crumbling for years, and was nearly razed to the ground until a campaign in the 1960s found it given Grade 1 Heritage listing. While that saved the building from being torn down, it didn’t mean that anyone had plans for it….so the hotel crumbled some more, this time with heritage-listing protection. Eventually, the exterior was restored at a cost of nearly £10 million in the 1990s (and the Spice Girls filmed “Wannabe”  on the grand staircase in 1996!), but it wasn’t until a full restoration was begun in 2004 that the hotel really came back to life, better than ever. It was officially opened as a 5-star hotel in 2011. And here we are! What I’m saying is, the Spice Girls and I have been in the same place!

st pancras renaissance hotel

You can see I’m a little obsessed. You could fill a book with the history of this place – and they did. And they left it in our room, and I read it. Fascinating!

And here’s the aforementioned Grand Staircase.

grand staircase spice girls st pancras renaissance

Also, check out this huge radiator. I’m not that tiny, I promise. Victorians, man. You were either living in a Dickensian hovel or in the very lap of luxury, as far as I can tell.

huge radiator st pancras renaissance hotel

Besides taking advantage of the amazing Turkish-style spa, pool, and steam room that’s hidden in the bowels of the building -multiple times, because we wanted to ring every penny out of our stay – we spent a lot of our time hanging out the in the private (oooh la la) Chambers Club. Access came with our room, and the Chambers were accessible through a private staircase as well, so it was a hidden space where they served complimentary food and drinks at all times of day and evening, and the staff were all very, very sweet. They also served up bite-sized macarons and the best tiny scones and jam and tea sandwiches I’ve had.

afternoon tea in chambers club st pancras renaissance

After checking in we had to be led to our room. We were getting antsy waiting for the bellman to lead us – the receptionist had asked us to wait, and we were sure we could just find it on our own – but it’s a good thing we waited. This place is huge, and our room ended up being in the wing furthest from reception, near the clocktower, down a corridor that is truly as wide as our living room at home. Our kind concierge informed us that the hallways were so wide to ensure that the huge bustles of the Victorian ladies who stayed in the hotel in its early years never ran into one another. The ceilings were also deliciously high. I’ve become so accustomed to how small most things are in England that it was astonishing to find ourselves in this cavernous, decadent building, meticulously restored to its former glory.

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Another highlight of our stay was our dinner at The Gilbert Scott Restaurant. Named after the architect who dreamt up this whole dreamy building, the restaurant made me feel as if we’d stepped back in time – it was yet another one of those feelings where I could picture people just like us eating and drinking just like we were 150 years before. No pictures I could have taken would have served it justice, so I’ve included this one from their website.

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steak at the gilbert scott restaurant st pancras renaissance

birthday dinner at the gilbert scott restaurant st pancras
Our stay was mostly about generalized chilling…we sat and laid around a lot, and drank a lot of wine and champagne (birthday!), and hung out in the pool, and I took two bubble baths, which was quite a feat for one overnight stay, but I really miss having a bath! Also they set up a little “bath ritual” for us that included bathtub snacks, a bottle of Veuve, and a golden rubber ducky so I basically had to.

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In the morning we had breakfast in The Booking Office, which is part of the hotel, but open to the public (and any London-based folk, you should go to it as quick as you possibly can, particularly if you’re taking the Eurostar anytime soon). They had the most amazing buffet, with basically the best version of everything you could want for breakfast. And you got to eat it in a room that looks like this. If you didn’t guess already by the name, this is the actual former booking office of St Pancras railway station, and the bar and buffet is built up against the former booking tills.

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breakfast bar booking office london

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After one last round in the steam room, followed by a swim, we eventually checked out. But we couldn’t bring ourselves to leave just yet, so we whiled away our afternoon drinking cocktails and reading in the Booking Office for another few hours.

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But eventually we had to say farewell to our short-lived life of luxury and go pick up our fluffy monster and eat a takeaway curry with Jon’s parents to carry on the birthday celebrations. Our little flat never felt so small (but I don’t mind, I promise!). We don’t have any more fancy luxury holidays in our near future, and on our train home we took this picture – I feel like our faces make us look like two people who feel like they’ve really accomplished something. Ha! See also: awkward hand clasp. We are INCREDIBLY photogenic.

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And one final thing – people live in the hotel year round! The whole top level is luxury flats. Can you even imagine?? Here’s an article with a fella that lives in one of them. Swoon. Also, no surprise, he’s a banker.

If you’d like to read more about the building, or book a guided tour, you can do that here. I may have to go back for the guided tour!

 

Touring London’s Parliament Building

If you are the type who could spend hours on any dreary rainy day wandering through Medieval artifacts in someone’s old drafty manor house, amused by ancient oil paintings and threadbare furniture, than you are my kind of person. Keep that in mind when I tell you that Jon and I splurged on the £18 fee on Saturday and took a guided audio tour of Parliament in London (also known as Westminster Palace, as it used to be a palace, which I did not know). On occasion when we tour these sorts of places I am a little underwhelmed. Having grown up on Disney movies and other fairy tales, manors and castles always seemed to be huge in my mind, and in real life most aren’t, and in fact are quite small compared to their American/New World counterparts. England is cozy! But Westminster Palace, and in particular the Great Hall, is huge and mesmerizing. Most of the building you aren’t allowed to take photographs in, but I don’t mind-more time for gaping with my eye holes. And after an hour or two of wandering around the seat of this nation’s government, Jon and I went shopping for awesome Japanese clothes (helloooo Uniqlo) then scored seats on a cushy couch for wine drinking at one of our favorite pubs in SoHo.

Big Ben

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touring Parliament London

parliament st stephen's chapel

touring parliament

st stephen's chapel

the opera house

A smattering of other historic adventures I have had, for the viewer’s reading pleasure:

Arundel Castle

Anne of Cleve’s House (one of Henry the 8th’s wives!)

The Roman Baths

Shoreham Fort

Salisbury Cathedral

Lewes Castle

Winter Wonderland 2014 (and Japanese ramen)

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I wouldn’t go so far as to say I’m a creature of habit, but it is fair to say that I am a lover of traditions, those both old and new. Anyone who has been reading since I began visiting (and then moved to) England, will know that Jon and I do a lot of the same stuff every holiday season, one of those things being a day in London where we indulge our voyeuristic need to “lick windows”, as the French say. Meaning, we go do a bit of window shopping in the decadent halls of Harrods. And we go to Winter Wonderland just around the corner in Hyde Park. And we drink mulled wine in the coldish weather (it’s never yet snowed when we’ve been at Winter Wonderland, so I’ll keep my fingers crossed for next year). And we just have a nice seasonally appropriate time together!

This year we decided to try to beat the crowds at the ridiculously popular Winter Wonderland by going on a weekday, and with both of us having a few days off left in our work banks, we were happily able to spend last Friday doing our Christmas thang and oh man, it is SO MUCH BETTER when you can avert the shoulder to shoulder crowds and actually shuffle around because you’re looking at everything and taking it all in, rather than shuffle around because you can’t move or breathe in the name of Christmas.

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winter wonderland christmas 2014

winter wonderland 2014 london

We did not ice skate, again, because Jon hates it, but it looked like everyone was having so much fun and I do enjoy watching people who are really bad at things but are having a wonderful time doing them anyway, if that makes sense. We split a bratwurst, that traditional Christmas treat (ha), and also split a trio of mini burgers, which were not good, in any way. Oh well.

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Borough Market, London

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Borough Market London Christmas

There are many places to go in London that evoke that Christmassy spirit, but Borough Market in December is definitely one of the best places to head to if you want to stuff your face with anything from chai tea and mulled cider to paella, freshly caught fish, a world of obscure sauces and condiments, and fancy french cheese samples. It’s a place I would recommend to anyone visiting London at any time of year, but it moves up the list to the top three come holiday season, particularly with its location just off and under London Bridge, and right next to a beautiful old church that looms over the whole market itself, the church bells chiming every hour. And to think that the market has existed here in some form since the 11th century? Come on. Magic.

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borough market london christmas

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borough market london christmas

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On this day in particular we stocked up on an amazing hard cheese that is soaked in red wine that Jon is crazy about, some blue corn tortillas, a tasty mushroom pate, and we also decided to split a ridiculous salt beef bagel that neither of us really needed. But it was worth it. Also, I had a lovely chai tea that I’d bought from an even lovelier chatty chai tea selling lady!borough market london

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